The birth certificate that skipped a whole generation

Tsitsi Singizi writes on how the multi-country – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Uganda & EU-UNICEF birth registration partnership is changing life in Zambia

By Tsitsi singizi
A newborn baby with his birth registration, in the PMI health center of Odienné, in the Northeast of Côte d'Ivoire.
UNICEF/UNI303187/Frank Dejongh
15 April 2020

11 November 2019, Monze, Zambia -There was a buzz in the Manungu Clinic’s waiting shed, a quite excitement hummed as mothers talked and exchanged notes on their babies and children.  Fathers were quietly present too, an oddity during an under five under clinic day in these parts of the world.

When Lusungu Sangakula, a community worker, walked in gingerly with a wad of papers, the parents quietened down. As he started calling out the names of the children, the excitement was back, as parents received birth certificates for their children.

Here at Manungu Clinic, on the outskirts of Monze, a small town, where most of the land still belongs to the Chief, in the southern province of Lusaka, the issuance of a simple birth certificate is a huge achievement.

On this day, all the parents in the clinic’s waiting area had never been registered at birth, let alone receive a birth certificate. From the eldest parent to the youngest mother, the story in the shed is the same.

It is a story of impossibility, invisibility in the earlier years and missed opportunities.

Most parents said getting a birth certificate was a near impossible feat, that took years and cost too much in terms of money and productive time.


“The only form of identity I had when I was a child was a baptism certificate and I missed many opportunities. Today, my last daughter becomes the first of my five children to receive a birth certificate’” says 61-year-old Clement Siyangoma.

Clement Siyangoma, 61 years old  holds the  first  birth certificate in  his  family
Clement Siyangoma, 61 years old holds the first birth certificate in his family
Memory Kembo finally holds her birth certificate
Memory Kembo 27 year olds finally holds her birth certificate

For 27-year-old, Mwemba Kombo, her lack of a birth certificate meant she missed a chance to study abroad, on bursary because without a birth certificate, she could not get a passport.

But slowly these stories of a bygone era are being replaced.

The children who are receiving their birth certificates at the clinic have done so within 90 days from birth, some in less than 10 days.

They did not have to wait a lifetime like their parents. 

Their parents did not have to travel hundreds of kilometers to the capital to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. They did not have to pay exorbitant fees and transport costs.

Upon delivery at the clinic, these mothers seamlessly applied for registration at their local health facility. Their birth certificates were processed and printed in Choma, the provincial capital a 100km away.

The Zambian government working with UNICEF, with financial support from European Union, have calibrated this simple, catalytic yet effective feat in under five years.

A first step was building an enabling environment through the amendment of the amendment of the Birth and Death Registration Act (CAP 51 of the Laws of Zambia). The Act allowed birth registration service to be decentralized, bringing services to where the people are.

Following the support of the rubric, printing machinery was then supported for the registrars in the 10 districts.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Ministries of Health and the Ministry of Home Affairs ensured a very cost effective and twinning of health and birth registration services. 

The last part of the puzzle was creating awareness and demand. This was done superbly. Through vibrant and selfless community workers such as Lusungu, communities are now sensitized.

The result has been impressive.

In less than two years, the EU-UNICEF programme saw birth registration coverage almost double in the focus districts, from 68,000 in 2017 to 134,500 in 2019. Birth registration has been successfully decentralized to provincial offices and in the remotest health clinics, the number birth of the registration desks is growing. 

“With investments from the European Union, more than 600 birth registration desks have been set-up in Zambian health facilities, which is an excellent mechanism for scaling-up birth registration as this is the place where babies are born and where mothers come with their young children,” said Robert De Raeve, European Union Chargé d’Affaires in Zambia.

The support received under a multi country grant of Euro 6 million has been catalytic. It has built on existing systems, providing both hardware and software to expand services, unlocking bottlenecks and removing barriers that had hindered birth registration in the past.

“The is hugely impressive and will have a life-changing impact on Zambian children as they grow – supporting their access to education, healthcare services, a national identity and a range of protection rights,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. “As we approach the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the challenge of Governments and partners across the continent is to ensure that the children’s first right-that of an identity is safe guarded.”

In Zambia birth registration ensures an array of human rights and services to a child. 

Back at Manungu clinic in the waiting shed, one generation later finally some identity, some protection and a world of opportunity. As the parents proudly hold their birth certificates, it is not only their triumph, but it is a  triumph  for development.